Norfolk Southern Announces Safety Plan Amid Train Derailment Aftermath

Norfolk Southern Announces Safety Plan Amid Train Derailment Aftermath
A Norfolk Southern freight train passes through Cincinnati, Ohio, on Feb. 27, 2023. (Jeff Louderback/The Epoch Times)
Jeff Louderback

Plagued by repeated freight train derailments, including a toxic crash in eastern Ohio in early February and another accident in southwest Ohio outside of Springfield on March 4, Norfolk Southern Railway introduced a six-point plan on March 6 “to immediately enhance the safety of its operations.”

The plan is based on the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary findings of the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine.

“Reading the NTSB report makes it clear that meaningful safety improvements require a comprehensive industry effort that brings together railcar and tank car manufacturers, railcar owners and lessors, and the railroad companies,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a March 6 statement. “We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action.”

Norfolk Southern said that it “will immediately begin” to enhance the hot bearing detector network, pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors, work with industry on practices for hot bearing detectors, deploy more acoustic bearing detectors, accelerate the company’s Digital Train Inspection program, and support a strong safety culture.”

“These enhanced safety measures follow the Feb. 23 release of the NTSB’s preliminary report, which traced the derailment and the initial fire to an overheated axle on car number 23, which was carrying plastic pellets,” the statement continued. “Subsequent NTSB testing indicated that the aluminum covers over the pressure relief valves on three of the five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride melted.”

On Feb. 3, a 151-car freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, a village of 4,761 residents in eastern Ohio around a mile from the Pennsylvania border.

A train fire is seen from a farm in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023. (Melissa Smith via AP)
A train fire is seen from a farm in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023. (Melissa Smith via AP)

When the train crashed, 38 rail cars derailed. A fire ensued, damaging an additional 12 cars.

Of the 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, 11 derailed, the NTSB reported.

Hoping to avoid an explosion, officials intentionally released and burned vinyl chloride from the train on Feb. 6, sending a massive cloud of black smoke into the sky that could be seen for miles and was likened to the mushroom cloud caused by a nuclear weapon.

Hot Bearing Detectors

NTSB findings have shown that the East Palestine derailment was likely caused by an overheated wheel bearing.

Hot bearing detectors are installed along railroad tracks to assess temperature conditions of wheel bearings along with the overall health of rail equipment and infrastructure.

Detectors had discovered the increasingly rising temperature of one of the Norfolk Southern train’s wheel bearings, the NTSB preliminary report indicated. By the time the wheel bearing reached the temperature level for the train to stop and undergo inspection, the derailment had evidently already happened, investigators learned.

The Federal Railroad Administration last week released a safety advisory encouraging railroads to improve the use of hot bearing detectors.

In its March 6 statement, Norfolk Southern reported that it plans to install around 200 hot bearing detectors to its network “with the first installed on the western approach to East Palestine.”

The railroad has approximately 1,000 detectors along its routes, the company said, and it will  evaluate “the distance between hot bearing detectors, which currently averages 13.9 miles on its core network.”

In addition, Norfolk Southern will “examine every location on its core network where the distance is more than 15 miles and develop a plan to deploy additional detectors where practical due to terrain and operating conditions,” the statement noted.

Norfolk Southern will work with rail industry peers “to analyze data for patterns that could provide earlier warnings of potential safety issues” and “to review best practices, including response to high-temperature alarms,” the company added.

Norfolk Southern will also “immediately accelerate the deployment of acoustic bearing detectors, which play a different role in its safety inspection program,” the railroad said.

“These detectors analyze the acoustic signature of vibration inside the axle and can identify potential problems that a visual inspection could not,” the statement continued.

Five detectors are already in service, and 13 new detectors will be added and stationed on high-traffic routes, which will “strengthen the early-warning system that identifies potential risks before they become issues,” Norfolk Southern explained.

In partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, the railroad will create more advanced safety inspection technology by incorporating “machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence to identify defects and needed repairs much more effectively than traditional human inspection.”

This new technology will feature “ultra-high-resolution cameras stationed in strategic locations around its network” and will provide Norfolk Southern with “a 360-degree health check on railcars, improving its ability to detect, diagnose, and repair defects before they become issues.”

The next phase of the technology will be installed on the railroad’s Premier Corridor, which connects Midwest and Northeast routes and passes through East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern will also join the FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System, or C3RS, as part of its safety plan.

Another Train Derails

The company’s accident record grew longer on March 4 after another of its trains derailed outside of Springfield, Ohio.

Norfolk Southern confirmed in a statement that 20 cars of a 212-car train veered off the tracks near the Clark County Fairgrounds.

Multiple cars of a Norfolk Southern train lie toppled on one another after derailing at a train crossing with Ohio 41 in Clark County, Ohio, on March 4, 2023. (Bill Lackey/Springfield-News Sun via AP)
Multiple cars of a Norfolk Southern train lie toppled on one another after derailing at a train crossing with Ohio 41 in Clark County, Ohio, on March 4, 2023. (Bill Lackey/Springfield-News Sun via AP)

No hazardous materials were aboard the train, and no injuries were reported, Norfolk Southern said.

Springfield is between Columbus and Dayton, about 200 miles southwest of East Palestine.

Mikal Watts is a Texas-based attorney who has partnered with environment activist Erin Brockovich and water expert Robert W. Bowcock to launch East Palestine Justice, an nonprofit group of lawyers, environmental activists, and scientific and medical professionals providing assistance to residents affected by the derailment.

Watts discussed Norfolk Southern’s history of train derailments at a recent town hall meeting in East Palestine. Among the incidents was a 2012 crash in Paulsboro, New Jersey, where a train spilled 300,000 pounds of vinyl chloride. In East Palestine, 1.1 million pounds of the carcinogen were released into the environment.

Norfolk Southern has reported 3,397 events that could be classified as a derailment over the past 20 years, Watts said.

In 2022, Norfolk Southern had 770 train car derailments involving hazardous materials compared to 79 incidents in 2012, he added.

According to a 10-year safety summary from the Federal Railroad Administration, Norfolk Southern had an annual average of 163.6 derailments and 2.9 hazardous material releases.

The Atlanta-based company has a recent history of derailments in Ohio before those in East Palestine and Springfield.

Last October, in Sandusky, a town along Lake Erie in northwest Ohio, 21 cars from a Norfolk Southern jumped the tracks and spilled 10,000 gallons of paraffin wax.

Five years to the day before the East Palestine disaster—on Feb. 3, 2018—a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Loudonville. That incident sent 16 cars off the tracks. One car spilled more than 30,000 gallons of liquified petroleum gas, and another car released 200 pounds of solid environmentally hazardous substances.

Actions Mounting

Norfolk Southern released its safety plan as the company faces a pile of lawsuits related to the East Palestine derailment and proposed rail safety legislation at the state and federal levels.

On March 1, Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), John Fetterman (D-Penn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced The Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bill aimed “to prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine.”

The bill takes steps to improve rail safety protocols, such as enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, creating a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, and increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers.

Shaw will appear at a hearing conducted by the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on March 9.

The Ohio House of Representatives last week passed its state transportation budget (HB 23), which included several amendments focused on rail safety like requiring two-person crews, ensuring wayside detector effectiveness, and mandating a report of hazardous chemicals transported through the state.

The Ohio Senate is holding hearings on the bill.

Clyde Whitaker is the state director of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. He would like to see HB 23 passed and signed into law.

“These railroads, they just don’t care. They’re not held accountable. They think they’re above the law,” Whitaker said. “We need shorter trains. We need better legislation on defect detectors. And right now our Senate in a state has the ability to do what’s right.”

Jeff Louderback covers news and features on the White House and executive agencies for The Epoch Times. He also reports on Senate and House elections. A professional journalist since 1990, Jeff has a versatile background that includes covering news and politics, business, professional and college sports, and lifestyle topics for regional and national media outlets.
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